The World Cup games being played in Brazil send a hopeful message that teams from Ghana, Nigeria, Ecuador and Honduras can qualify to play against much better funded teams from Europe and North America. Talent, hard work, ambition and years of building a team can make a winner of teams from poorer nations – at least, enough to feed the dreams of a boy in the favelas of Rio or the slums of Lagos.
The appearance of Vietnam last year in the PISA league tables with scores above the OECD average also sent a hopeful message that even those countries with less than half the average GDP per capita in the OECD countries can do well by its students. As with football or soccer, talent, hard work, ambition and effort at building a competent teacher force can improve student performance dramatically. If a country focuses on one education goal with the fervor that nations, teams and individuals devote to the World Cup, focusing their best talent and resources as needed, could it not achieve such an important goal by 2030?
But what education goal should we aim for?
We want the best quality and the most number of years of schooling possible for all of the world’s children, in rich and poor countries alike. The sobering reality, however, is that most countries are very far from reaching this ideal goal. UNESCO estimates that across the globe 57m children who should be attending school are out of school and that 250 million school-age children are unable to read and do math. Despite the EFA goals, one-quarter to one-half of all primary school graduates in some countries cannot read a single sentence, even after spending three or more years in the classroom, and most of those who complete secondary education are not equipped for tertiary education or the workplace.
These numbers have been repeated in many studies. They reveal a learning crisis of serious proportions, requiring no less than laser-like focus and extreme measures. We want education systems to produce learners who are creative and critical thinkers and problem-solvers and who are able to continue acquiring new knowledge and skills throughout their lives—but are education systems that cannot produce good readers with basic math and science skills able to produce creative, lifelong learners? Most likely not.
For the post-2015 development agenda, it is time to take on the difficult task of improving teaching and learning. And yet, the proposal from the UN Open Working Group  fails to be clear that the global education goal that our children need is learning for all.
The 1990 Education for All declaration recognized that quality education is what we owe the world’s children, but the MDGs of 2000 focused on enrolment rates and completion rates, without a focus on learning outcomes. Since 1990, nearly all countries have achieved notable increases in enrolment and completion, but not much progress in learning outcomes. The meaning of quality education has been reduced to a call for more and better inputs – needed investments surely, but evidence from around the world demonstrate that these are far from enough to improve learning.
How to improve learning has produced heated debates in many countries, including in Abuja, Rio and Washington. Mostly, the debates have been around how to attract better talent into the teaching profession, how to motivate teachers to attend their classes and do their best, and how to increase the accountability of public officials and local communities for the quality of schools. This conversation draws heat because it is about the future of each child as well as about long-term consequences of poor learning on the prosperity of economies and the stability of countries – and rightly so.
The discussions about a unifying goal for education for post-2015 continue to miss the mark. The proposed goal of the Open Working Group in New York ignores the lesson of the past two decades. While quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all may be what we want, experience tells us that, without spelling out the learning outcomes that we would measure, we face again the danger that quality education would be interpreted in the most convenient of ways – measuring inputs, not results; increasing enrolment, not learning. With the exception of target 4.4 which is advocacy for adult literacy programs, the targets offered by the Open Working Group are just as vague about what quality education means.
The EFA Steering Committee  has crafted a better overarching goal of ensuring equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030 that reflects the global discussions about greater equity and inclusion in education. Their proposed targets include early childhood care and education, learning, and equality for gender and marginalized populations. There are five outcome targets in all, one fewer and more specific than those proposed by the Open Working Group. The list is a huge step in the right direction. I would suggest reducing this list further to the first two or three targets because a sharper focus is also smarter, ensuring greater success for the first two or three targets and, with time, for the rest as well. Early, basic and effective learning is the foundation for a lifetime of learning.
Another reason for a more limited set of targets is that the targets must be measurable. The UN High-Level Panel Report calls for a “data revolution.” This is a much needed change; many low-income countries do not yet have time-series data on even the most basic of indicators. Monitoring performance against the targets will require not just one-off measurement but periodic and timely measurement. We have more data now on learning than we did in 1990 or 2000, but more and better data are going to be needed to monitor the post-2015 agenda.
Few can speak as eloquently and as passionately as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown about the children in Afghanistan or South Sudan or Syria who are not able to attend school, as he did in Brussels last week. And he is right that we must secure the future of those children if we are to secure the future of their communities, by improving the availability of schools, trained teachers and learning materials. Those children deserve nothing less. But what would schooling really mean for them if they don’t actually learn to read or count by the time they leave school? What if education fails the very children for whom we hope it can offer a way out of poverty and deprivation? Around the world, the greatest learning deficits are among children who live in extreme poverty, in urban slums and remote rural areas, in fragile and conflict-affected environments, those from ethnic minorities and lower castes, and those who have disabilities. Education cannot continue to fail these children when they go to school. Equitable and inclusive education for all cannot be achieved without significant improvements in teaching and learning, because the promise of education is realized only when it indeed improves lives.
Follow the World Bank education team on Twitter: @wbeducation